The scorching sun hovers directly above a bountiful field of
agave in Central Mexico. A dozen jimadors, the farmers who harvest
the green-blue succulents, slice off long, spiky stalks to reveal
sugar-rich hearts - it's the piña, or pineapple, that's distilled
to make tequila. Making their way across this rugged terrain,
cautiously stepping over a bridge of broken stalks, are Jennifer
Hawkins and Jake Wall. Hawkins hastily trades her gold Louis
Vuitton wedges for a pair of Havaianas. This is a research mission,
after all, not a fashion shoot.
"It's hard yakka out here," Hawkins says, as the jimadors thwack the agave with their flat-bladed coas. The Sierra Madre Occidental rears up behind her, and the soft thrum of crickets can be heard. "This has been an adventure," she adds.
When Hawkins - model, brand ambassador, television presenter and entrepreneur - likes to unwind, it's with a tequila-infused cocktail. She was introduced to the spirit by her husband, Wall, who's long been a tippler. The pair serve tequila when entertaining at home, order it while holidaying in far-flung locations, and enjoyed it at their Bali wedding two years ago. Indeed, they are so enamoured of Mexico's national drink that they are launching their own brand, Sesión, in Australia this October.
The state of Jalisco has more than 150 registered distillers, but Hawkins and Wall were intent on working with one in particular, Tierra de Agaves. "We didn't want to put our names on something second rate - we wanted the best we could get," says Hawkins.
Not all tequilas are created equal. "Mixtos" are made with at least 51 per cent agave and fortified with sugar. Typically, it's these that lead to a dreaded hangover. Sesión is made from 100 per cent blue agave, and it's a small-batch artisanal spirit, which, according to Hawkins, makes it smoother. Tierra de Agaves is known for adhering to a strict farm-to-bottle ethos. The famed distillery was established by Francisco Beckmann, whose family founded bestselling brand Jose Cuervo. Hawkins and Wall also partnered with Tim Freeburn and Shane McKillen, who were once involved in 42 Below vodka.
"Tim and Shane introduced us to the Beckmanns, and we immediately liked the fact that our tequila would come from the one estate and the one distillery," says Wall as we ride in the back of a pick-up truck, navigating our way along bumpy sun-toasted roads back to the distiller's headquarters. "Some companies source their agave from various places, but we get the same premium product every time," he adds.
At the Tierra de Agaves base, we follow the various stages of tequila production - cooking, pressing, fermenting, distilling, ageing and bottling - like a group of earnest chemistry students, with master agave grower José Fernández as our guide. "It's good to have this lesson," says Hawkins.
First, we visit the cooking room, where the piñas are steamed and then cooled. It takes roughly eight years for the fruit to be ripe enough to be harvested. Puffs of fragrant steam emanate from enormous stainless-steel vats. "The scent is so sweet," says Hawkins, who likens the aroma to a honey-nut cereal. Fernández offers us some of the cooked fruit to taste, which is delicious.
We also try an unprocessed tequila, which leaves a burning sensation in the mouth. It has some way to go before being drinkable. "I'm a lightweight, so that was a little intense," says Hawkins. Most tequilas, including Sesión, are bottled at around 40 per cent alcohol.
With Sesión, the couple hopes to introduce drinkers to the nuances of tequila. Many of us associate the spirit with shots with salt and lime. But there's another side to tequila that's more cultured, refined and flavourful. "It's not just a slam, bam, sort of drink," says Wall, seated in a tasting room. Here, we try a slew of different styles, starting with blanco, an unaged tequila that's ideal for mixing. Amber-hued reposado, which is rested in Bourbon barrels for six months, is excellent straight up or mixed. And bronze-tinted añejo, aged for 12 to 18 months, deserves to be savoured. This añejo has an arresting, smoky flavour and bright floral undertones.
"If you can identify traces of wood, vanilla and cooked agave,
it's a good tequila," says expert taster Guillermo Murillo. Try a
lot of tequilas, connoisseurs advise, and you'll even detect
Sesión will début with three varieties: a clear, young Blanco; barrel-aged Reposado; and Mocha, a concoction laced with coffee and chocolate.
"Mocha is super-feminine," says Hawkins, "and lovely if you have a sweet tooth." The US market, more advanced in the tequila stakes than ours, will also have an añejo.
Over the years, Hawkins has parlayed her looks and fame into an impressively eclectic career. The former Miss Universe has been a brand ambassador for Myer since 2007, launched a swimwear line and bronzing collection, and formed a property development company with her partner. How does alcohol fit into her burgeoning lifestyle brand?
"It's a passion project for us, and it happened so organically. There's definitely a gap in the market for an Australian tequila," says Hawkins. "And since Sesión is produced with 100 per cent blue agave, you can say it's natural." Everything in moderation, they admit, but there may even be health benefits to imbibing tequila. It's purported to bolster the appetite, aid in digestion and possibly even assist in reducing cholesterol.
"Tequila contains simple sugars which break down easily in your body, and it has a low glycemic index," says Wall. "When I discovered that, I said 'yes'!" adds Hawkins.
In the sherbet-coloured town of Tequila, the spiritual home, we whiz by street vendors selling fresh fruit, coconut drinks and vibrant ceramic gourds, and stop at a roadside bar that specialises in tequila cocktails called Cantaritos. Brass-heavy traditional Mexican banda music booms from a set of speakers, and behind a long counter loaded with ingredients two fresh-faced young men prepare a round of potent drinks. Cantaritos are made from orange juice, grapefruit juice, grapefruit soda, lime juice and salt with two generous shots of tequila. They're served in an enormous clay pot, which you can take with you. "Oh dear, I might be on the ground soon," warns Hawkins, gamely sipping at hers.
Lunch is at a restaurant in the grand Hotel Solar de las Animas, which was inspired by a Creole colonial house. True to form, Hawkins has a frozen Margarita with her grilled chicken. Wall has the same drink on the rocks to accompany his steak. I order the prawns cooked with tequila essence, happy to note the spirit is finding its ways into cuisine, too. "You can also douse it on steak," says Wall.
Contemplating her newfound status as a tequila advocate, Hawkins
flashes a mischievous smile.
"We find that if we have tequila, the night takes unexpected turns - it's more spontaneous and fun. It kind of elevates you."
Sesión tequila will be available from October at Qantas epiQure, First Choice, and Vintage Cellars for around $90 a bottle.
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